What's All the Fuss About Resilience?

We catch-up with our Coaching and Devlopment Manager Emma Willars as she unpacks the themes and considers why resilience is so important for our busy working lives.


Q: How would you define resilience?

Emma: I think it's changed subtlely over time. Resilience used to be defined as an individual's ability to bounce back after adversity, perhaps a serious event. Today, given the pressures of full-stretched lives at work and home, it has come to mean something different. It's now more about having the ongoing ability to show up each day and 'get on with it'; to tackle the daily 'juggle or struggle'. It's no longer about being able to withstand a big thing that might come along and knock you off your feet, like in those old TV shows 'Total Wipeout' or 'Gladiators', but more about being able to deal with the cumulative effect of small things that, perhaps across a single given day or week, can take their toll and possibly overwhelm or derail you.

Q: It seems to have come so much to the fore recently. Where has this focus come from?

Emma: Back in the day, people might have had more support around them, whether that was extended family or closer ties to the local community. Work may have been closer to your home so perhaps there was greater opportunity to finish a tough shift by heading down the pub to unwind. Today, it's a different kind of resilience that's required, and this is because it can just seem like there is no let-up. We are all much more on 24/7. For those of us in professional roles we just don't get to the end of the shift or working day. If the factory bell doesn't ring at five o'clock how are you going to get out of there? How can we make the time to do the things that are restorative and which can give us what we need to be able to 'turn up' the next day. The ability to switch off can be such a challenge for so many of us. And who do we have around us these days; where's the backup?

Q: I feel that technology is going to get a mention here...

Emma: Many of us may love the gains we enjoy from having our smartphones and our tech: we can be connected to others for working remotely, attending online meetings, and collaborating and communicating quickly. There are clearly plenty of positives, but there are negatives too, such as around how much - or how little - real, live contact we have with people. In many ways, I feel that the talk around resilience comes from a shift in what we mean by 'friend' or 'network' and how we connect with others, as well as ourselves. Social media can often give us a false sense of connection and we hear about how for our young people home and school are becoming blurred so that they no longer have that private, safe space at the end of each day. This can be true for the blurring of home and work lives too.

Q: Is resilience about ensuring we never run out of 'mental battery'? That we don't get too run down?

Emma: It's partly that. Resilience is not just one factor though. It is about mental wellbeing but it's also about physical and emotional resilience. If we are going to be at a level where we can perform as we want to - or are expected to - then yes, we need to be fully charged. But how do you do that? If you're a busy working parent with kids at home and a long commute or caring for elderly relatives living some distance away, then it may be that your gym membership - or other regular activity you once did - has gone out of the window. And being physically strong is part of our wellbeing. So, we need to ask ourselves - are we taking regular exercise? Are we eating properly? In many cases, probably not; are we skipping lunch, or eating too much, or too late? This may then impact on our sleep; both the amount of sleep and the quality.

Q: Continuing the battery idea here...what about switching off to ensure we don't run down?

Emma: Absolutely. Switching-off time is key. Many people have lost valuable daydreaming time! Being bored, allowing our brains to wander is an important part of their function and contributes to keeping them healthy. We may once have simply stared out of the window on a commute or enjoyed some music. With smartphones, we can be interrupted at any moment. It's not just about switching off our phones though, it's about having rest and time out. It's really key. If we are not rested; if we are not looking after ourselves physically and mentally, then we are likely to be suffering emotionally too. It spills over. We will be less able to keep calm under pressure, less able to regulate our responses. All of that becomes harder if we're not having that restorative time or those breaks.

Q: Do you think the responsibility lies with us as individuals or with organisations?

Emma: I think it's both. The good news is that organisations are paying attention to wellbeing. We have national campaigns like Mental Health Awareness Week which are celebrated much more widely than in the past, and there's attention given to widespread events. We see people becoming qualified in the workplace to act as Mental Health First Aiders; to notice signs when people are struggling and to be available as a first port of call. And this is because jobs are becoming bigger; the workload is bigger. As an individual though, we can take responsibility in our response to this. In our coaching sessions we talk a lot with our coachees about setting parameters; getting good at saying no; being realistic about what's possible at home and at work. When we're coaching individuals around the parent transition we pay attention to how important it is to keep everything sustainable, that we need to pay attention to our own rest. So much of this is about our own management of boundaries. And good communication too. It's tempting at times to feel or even say "I just can't do this anymore." Finding ways to have good conversations to make it doable and sustainable is something we have to be proactive about, and that's for individuals to tackle. Things won't be the same if you are returning to work after a first or second or third child; things will have shifted. If you are taking on greater care and responsibility for an adult or elderly loved one, it's likely you won't be managing your work and home lives in the same way. You need to pay attention to that, so yes, of course, we have a responsibility as individuals and we need to recognise that.

Q. How do we do that? How do we find what works best to help be resilient and maintain ourselves?

Emma: It's difficult, there's no simple solution. I suppose this is the challenge we face in our webinars - no magic 'fix all' answers. The point really is that it's about what works for you individually and in your families - and what's really significant is that you have to notice what works for you. And importantly, you need to notice the 'triggers'. Coaching is not about saying, 'okay, here's what you need to do...you now know it all, so go and do this one specific thing' but rather 'some weeks are better than others - try to notice why.' So, pay attention to those moments when you may overreact, or get angry, or get upset, or give in to the pressure you are under. It's about practising this noticing - and working out what response works for you. It could be something you already think is helpful, or it may be about finding something new if you need to.

Q. So we need to ensure our 'fuse' doesn't overload? Avoiding the need to replace it; to simply patch up and carry on?

Emma: Patching up just doesn't work. We're talking about people having sustainable careers over decades. You cannot just patch up any challenge that's creeping into family or work lives and simply hope for the best. It has to be about working out what's possible and desirable for all. Perhaps ask, "If I'm going to be doing this in ten years' time, what positive habits do I need to get good at?" I hope people will join us for our Building Resilience webinar to invest some time in the shared strategies and practical action - it might just be a starting point for finding what works for you...


Emma Willars, Coaching & Consultancy Development Manager at Bright Horizons and parent of three.